WASHINGTON -- The mini-controversy over President Clinton's celebrated haircut is, of course, intrinsically trivial. It has nothing to do with the fate of the republic.
But the fact that the president allowed it to happen has everything to do with his political judgment and the growing perception among the wise guys that he is out of his depth politically. When the issue is the condition of the economy, a politician who spends $200 to have his hair cut while Air Force One sits on a landing strip in Los Angeles just doesn't get it.
White House spokesmen blustered that a president has a right to get his hair cut just like anyone else, and no one can deny that. But this is a president who had just a few hours earlier been doing a publicity event -- playing basketball with some kids in South Central Los Angeles -- designed to show how in touch he could be with ordinary Americans.
The contrast was striking. One moment the common man at home playing half-court, the next an American imitating some out-of-control Kuwaiti sheik with too much oil money in his pocket. If Clinton wants to send a message playing basketball, he can hardly complain about the message he sends with his fancy haircut.
No one would suggest the incident has done Clinton some permanent damage that cannot be overcome with a success in getting his budget through the House next week and the Senate sometime later. But Clinton has been a familiar figure on the national stage for only about 10 months and in the White House only four months, so that the voters are still learning what kind of guy he is.
And that learning process means studying a president for clues that can form the basis of judgment. Thus, for example, when Jimmy Carter came to the White House in 1977, voters saw him carrying his bags and seemed to decide he was being too studied in his humility.
The message in this case is quite different -- that Clinton is a president suffering a serious hubris problem at a time when reason should suggest he would be better advised to present himself as the essence of humility. Moreover, he seems to be a president being plagued by small gaffes -- jokes that misfire, for example -- that raise doubts about what kind of political HTC operation he has going on around him. Why wasn't there someone in the presidential entourage with the wit to suggest there was a better place to get a haircut than on Air Force One parked on the tarmac?
Clinton is not the first president who has failed to demonstrate that he is in touch with common values. One of the problems for George Bush, for instance, was his insistence during the difficult times on playing golf and riding around in his cigarette boat at Kennebunkport.
During the early stages of the last campaign in 1991, Bush political advisers had a tough time persuading him that voters worried about their jobs might take it amiss to see him tooling around in his boat every weekend. At the same time, however, it must be said that Bush, despite his patrician background or perhaps because of it, never behaved in a way that allowed the picture of an imperial presidency to develop.
In one sense, harping on the haircut seems petty. Clinton defenders make a valid point when they argue that there are too many serious problems to be confronted for the press to become preoccupied with a silly story like this one. But in another sense, that is exactly the point. There are serious problems confronting Clinton, and the last thing he needs is to create any more diversions from the business at hand.
Bill Clinton has always been a street-wise politician. As such, he must understand how important atmospherics and perceptions can be in determining the climate in which serious decisions are made.
The problem for the president is that he enjoys so little margin for error now. If Clinton were riding high in the opinion polls and on a roll in pushing legislation through Congress, his haircut would be laughed off as a temporary aberration, perhaps even an endearing eccentricity.
But anyone who understands how Washington works knows Clinton is in political peril. His approval ratings have dropped below 50 percent in some polls, and he is fighting off rebellions from other Democrats in Congress. Republicans are emboldened to defy a president they see as perhaps already on the skids.
Given that hostile climate, the president might have been wiser to summon a barber to his office, get a trim and keep it all under his hat.